What’s valuable in a world of abundance?

Despite the recent negative press about Uber, you can’t argue with the fact that it’s an effective service that solves a problem.  The feeling of calling a driver from your smartphone, having them show up and take you wherever you want to go is thrilling.

A recent article about Uber’s interest in developing autonomous cars to replace the drivers in their fleet caught my attention.  On the surface, it makes capitalistic sense to reduce their costs and risk associated with human drivers.  Humans are seen as the weak link in the chain – the link that is most directly related to negative impacts on profitability. .  Investment into autonomous vehicles eliminates this weak link and everybody wins.

Or do they?

A lot has been made recently about how human progress for the next decade will exponentially accelerate due to sci-fi level advances in technology.  Peter Diamandis does a fantastic job of painting a picture of this new world in his books Abundance and Bold.  The basic premise is that silicon chips and computers are quickly reaching a tipping point where artificial intelligence, additive manufacturing and massive democratization of our economy will completely change the way we live. The flip side? This transition will  eliminate millions of jobs in the process.

A recent study by two professors at Oxford University estimated that 47% of all jobs (PDF) in the American economy will be replaced by machines, displacing all of those workers.  Drivers of Uber cars are included in this 47% and, as I explained above, it makes perfect sense to eliminate human drivers and replace them with robotic cars that will carry us wherever we want to go. Consistency and reliability of execution and dramatically lower costs are hard to argue with at the business model level.

Yet, while pondering all of this I can’t shake one little fact when I compare Uber drivers to a city Cab.

The reason I personally like Uber is the conversation I have with a driver.  I tend to use Uber when traveling instead of traditional cabs.  Uber drivers are particularly friendly, something I’m sure is intentional on their part due to the well documented rating system Uber has employed.  Uber’s unique method of tipping drivers also eliminates the awkward, “You’re being nice because you want a tip” effect, freeing up the potential to have a genuine conversation.

A trip in an Uber is a practical way to get from point A to point B, but also represents the potential for making a new friend and genuinely interacting with a stranger in a safe and controlled way (with a few rare exceptions).

This brings me back to the topic of autonomous cars.  This experience would completely change if the car was controlled by a powerful mix of technology.  I am not aware of anyone who is currently studying this, but I would guess that the effect is far more than we realize.

So, how do you bring together the rise of machines with the need for a truly human experience?  That’s a multi-billion dollar question.

Going back to our example of Uber for a moment, would people pay to have a driver sit at the wheel of an autonomous Uber car just for the sake of safety and conversation? Would they find enough value in that level of interaction to demand a better experience?

I think the answer is that we don’t know yet.  Our entire society believes that machine based interfaces are superior to human ones.  Click, order, eat – after all – is the new way to get a sandwich. The examples are everywhere.  ATM’s vs. Bank Tellers. Automated Supermarket checkout machines. Common wisdom says that replacing human interaction with machines is a better choice.

Yet, I see a backlash to this growing.

We have an entire generation of people who grew up with computers (the dreaded Millennials) who know no different.  I think they will reach a point where they will value a human interaction over a machine interaction.  Here’s why.

For those of us (myself included) who were born after 1980, particularly who have grown up in more affluent Western countries, our machine filled world is the norm.  We’ve always known a world filled with cell phones, unlimited TV and the world’s collective knowledge right at our fingertips.  We live in a world of massive abundance, as Diamandis argues.

So, what’s left to value when everything is at your fingertips?

This is the most human of all questions and borders on a dive into the unknowable depths of philosophy, so I will propose that instead of trying to answer that question by looking at the future, we answer it by observing the past.

Throughout history, unlimited abundance has been the privilege of the aristocracy of the world.  Kings and Queens capture our imagination because of their perceived life of comfort where all they need to do is snap their fingers for someone to bring them whatever they desire.

Yet, we don’t have to look very far to see that money can’t buy everything.  Things like happiness, genuine friendship, secrets or even love are the cliche answers to this question but faced with abundance they become very real.  Our literature and movies reflect this.  You don’t need to look much further than the recent Hunger Games series or even Shakespeare to see that the human currency in those stories has nothing to do with material things such as money or machines.

So, what does our future hold? What’s valuable in a world of abundance?

I don’t think discovering what is valuable will be too difficult, because we humans are very predictable.  The interesting bit will be how our society reacts to a world where people no longer value money (because abundance pushes costs to near zero) compared to the intangibles of being human like relationships and community.

We see several examples of companies getting this right today.  My personally favorite example is the Young Entrepreneur’s Council, an invite-only community for Entrepreneurs to connect with resources and develop friendships.  The YEC team has executed brilliantly on a community driven business that is both profitable and provides tremendous value to its members in the form of their own currency, particularly connections and resources.  I’ve been privileged to get a glimpse into how the YEC pulls this off and it’s a mix of machines and high-touch human beings who work together in flawless harmony.

I hope we see more examples like the YEC in coming years and it is where I believe we will see the future of our economy go.  Machines have done amazing things for our world and as they continue to take over more and more of our economy, I see the future belonging to companies who embrace the advances that machines provide while provide a high-touch and very human experience to their customers at the same time.

Have machines taken over your world? Do you miss human interaction or prefer machine interaction?

Many thanks to my friend Chris Rechtsteiner for helping spark the idea and reviewing this post.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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  • Nice post Mike. Rainer Strack from German has a pretty compelling TED talk where he discusses the global workforce shortfall that will happen in 2030. There is nothing that can be done about it now, even if countries start cranking out kids, in just 15 years the number of workers needed to support .GDP growth simply will not be available. Check out http://bit.ly/1Oxx1gb to see the graph. Will robots need to make up for the worker shortfall? Perhaps. Will Robots be taught to carry on a conversation with you, while it drives you around, that would be some pretty good programming!

  • Perhaps the expansion of machine automation will lead to further human interaction through the freeing of time from menial labour. Instead of being in a Uber by yourself you may find that several of your friends are also along for the ride. The number one reason we spend less time together is menial work, abundance could lead to a serious change to our system of economics and as a result increase the amount of time we have to spend with each other.
    If I may be so bold as to offer you an example of such an alternative.